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Remembering the 1979 eclipse

It was on my way back from running a marathon when, as planned, I pulled into a Highway 97 rest stop south of Shaniko, parked my car, then pretended to sleep. It was Feb. 25, 1979, the night before the next morning's total eclipse of the sun.

What happened was told in a full page photo-story in the Tuesday, Feb. 27 Klamath Falls Herald and News headlined, "Eclipse: The Moon Devoured the Sun and Thousands Along Usually Lonely Highways Saw It Happen." If I'm lucky - if forest fires or clouds don't obscure the view - I'm hoping for a second similar or better tale to tell.

* * *

We waited anxiously. Low clouds cluttered Monday morning's horizon. Would they be too high to block the sun, to cut off our visibility of the eclipse?

All around the rest stop along Highway 97 people began to cluster. Parking areas at the usually sparsely visited stop south of Shaniko were packed with school buses, campers, large motor homes, family sedans, vans. Some had arrived the night before; others streamed in through the night and pre-dawn hours. Traffic along the nearby highway more closely resembled a metropolitan freeway, not a lonely two-lane road through desolate Eastern Oregon.

Everyone had come to see "Moonshadow," the total eclipse of the sun.

And almost everyone was well prepared with everything from homemade pinhole viewing devices to sophisticated, high-powered telescopes. Now all we could do was wait.

The doubt was brief — the sun cleared the cloud layer about 7:15. The eclipse was happening and, unlike viewers elsewhere along the path of totality (clouds obscured views throughout most of Oregon), we would see it all.

The atmosphere was friendly, cheerful, carnival. Viewers helped time flee by inspecting others' viewing devices. Adults chided youngsters not to look directly at the sun, then sometimes forgot their own advice. Time quickly slipped along, and so did the moon as it slipped across the sun.

Shortly after 8 o'clock light faded, the already cold air chilled. The crescent turned to a sliver as we faced west hoping to see shadow bands, waves of alternating light and shadow, that would precede totality. It wasn't a day for disappointments - the nervous shadow bands wriggled in sheets as the surreal twilight crashed into darkness.


Light collapsed as the moon devoured the sun. Many of us had tried to ready ourselves for the sight, but the reality of totality was awesome, humbling. Some shouted, others were simply open-mouthed. It was a feeling, an experience we thought we were prepared for but were totally unprepared for.

Venus and Mars glowed brightly, stars twinkled. But the all-compelling focus was the moon-covered sun. The corona shimmered, a sight unlike any other I had ever experienced. Beads of light, "Baily's Beads," flashed just as the moon completed totality. The "diamond ring" blazed and — reluctantly, sadly — totality was over.

Over but not ended.

"I understand," someone said as light refilled the sky, "why people travel hundreds, thousands of miles to see a total eclipse."

Totality had lasted only slightly over a minute, but also for a lifetime.

* * *

All this time later, more than 38 years, re-reading the story stirs vivid memories, gives me goosebumps.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but on August 21 another solar eclipse will happen. There was excitement in 1979, but nothing like the prelude to this year's eclipse, when millions of people will gather on beaches, highways, mountain tops and anyplace with sky views, hoping, hoping.

This time around I'll be with friends returning from a multi-day backpacking trip. We'll be camping along the Metolius River on the property of a Facebook friend I've never met. Hoping for a second chance in a lifetime.

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.